Not too many weeks ago, at the Brown Hotel in Louisville where some fine writers periodically gather, a seasoned and beloved writer and mentor conversed over beers with a small troupe of beginning and emerging writers about the prospect of self-publishing. He relayed how he understood but gently rebuffed his son’s hammering on the simple business of ROI, because, he said, “I still have my pride.” Or maybe I said that. Somebody said it. I’ll pretend he said it. He said something like that, and the level of respect I have for him prevented me from waxing self-righteous about there being no place for pride in art; after all, this is the same man who, after I attempted to defend my fiction, told me “the truth is no excuse”—besides, obviously, I felt the same way. But I wonder if this feeling—this aversion—is akin to preferring a horse and carriage to these faddish “automobiles” a century ago.
I want to say this debate, like capital punishment or abortion, is done to death, and we should find some new thing to argue about. But here we are anyway, groping around in that amorphous and awkward In-between. Amazon says e-books are now outselling even paperbacks. A literary agent, not too far from the Brown that day, cautioned that Amazon doesn’t go into enough detail about those numbers. Newspapers are still gallantly and romantically fighting the cancer of a new age, and still yet other romantics mourn the hefty scent of aging paper as though submerging their noses into the lingeringly aromatic pillows of lost lovers. It may indeed be time to bury them and go on with our lives though pride and sentiment hold us close.
I mean, hell, this is supposed to be a digital age blog post, and I’m too busy thoughtfully essaying to do it right; and by right, I mean quick and dirty. I still have my pride. I still have decades of (mostly 20th century) teaching and skill development pressing on my psyche. I have a fancy degree and letters behind my name. And that means I can’t just slap some words down and push the publish button.
That same agent told a story about a well known writer leaving his publishing company to do it himself. On the same day, a writer who’d built a large internet following by self-publishing took the aforementioned writer’s place at the same publishing company. This appears to be the modern state: a free-for-all of flux. Meanwhile, across the Web somewhere, as new literary mags pop up all over, CJ West, who has five books under his belt already, writes that giving away his latest ebook for free on the Internet boosted sales of his other books six fold.
I’m sitting on two chapbooks of poetry. Aside from cover art and formatting, they’re ready to go. I’m ready to go, ready to ship these children off into the mean world and make new babies. I don’t know if the books are any good, what literary philosophy is behind them—they are what they are: my creations— if anyone would buy them, if anyone would take the financial risk to print up a few hundred dollars worth and pimp them. Up until this point, I understand I’ve been all art and no business, all pomp and no street smarts. And street smarts in this day and age might mean signing up with Amazon or some other DIY company and believing in yourself and your work instead of waiting for somebody else to do it, so long as you’re not too worried about the next time you meet up at the Brown and have to face the question: Who’s your publisher?
Because saying you are your own publisher is like listing your mother as a reference on your resume. Would my pride be able to stand it?
As of this moment, my pride is beating me to death. I haven’t sent my collections anywhere yet—well, once, last summer, to a chapbook contest. I lost. So I can’t really speak to the horrors of publishing the old-fashioned way if I haven’t really tried. Of course, there’s also some psychological protection inherent in that, the kind of psychological protection a young man gets by not asking his secret crush out on a date. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, but nothing ventured, nothing hurt, either.
And, well, silly, right?
There may be some consolation in the nature of poetry publishing, a safer ground than, say, the ground fiction publishing rests on, at least for now. Poe self-published. I chatted with one young representative of a small, indie press who told me her only goal was to sell enough chapbooks to cover the cost of printing: about $250. Naturally, she has to put in a lot of sweat equity, running around pimping her new authors. Poetry still seems the most purely artistic of the genres. There’s no money in it anyway, it’s especially prone to modern styling and philosophy and the austere judgment of the adherents of those styles and philosophies; and I imagine poets carry with them the same weighty acceptance painters do: the possibility of languishing in obscurity until death, and by the cruel irony of art, then they make it big.
So what’s your pride worth, anyway? Is there really that big a gap between pride and $250? My family spends that much on weekly groceries, and chances are digitally self-publishing will cost far less, depending on the price of your pride. In the end, it may just be a matter of how effectively you’re able to market yourself and how effectively you can believe in yourself despite the down-the-nose looking you fear. It’s a new world, man, a vain world, a (hopefully) screw-the-Man world where the fabled Machine of the 20th century is choking and sputtering its last.